Do You Really Need a Skin Toner?

Skin Care

A close up of a beautiful young woman removing her make up.

Not long ago, I was on a shopping excursion to Sephora to find some fun products to share with readers. I found a rose-scented toner from Lancôme (review soon to follow!) that I found helped make my skin feel clean without being dry. But toner is one of those things that doesn’t seem to have a defined or agreed upon purpose.

It was once marketed as something to balance skin’s pH, but that is no longer necessary since skin can balance itself out.  Some are said to moisturize skin, while others make skin tighter, and some have been known to dry out skin.

So how do you use a toner, and what is it good for?

Who Needs a Toner?

There are many kinds of toners, including toners, tonics, and astringents.
Toners tend to benefits those with oily skin most, but most people don’t need a toner.

Dr. Alicia Zalka claims that we should use toners after clearing away make up or washing our faces, though it isn’t an essential part of or procedure. But toners aren’t for everyone, Dr. David E. Bank, M.D., explains (Beautiful Skin). Because they’re often drying — even those with witch hazel — they’re best for oily skin that benefits from the extra clean.

Basically, a toner will swipe away any dirt or bacteria that still remains on our faces after washing or treating it, especially if it contains alcohol and acids as in tonic astringents.  Plus, it is believed that applying a toner while skin is still damp will increase other products’ efficacy for the skin (Huffington Post).

Dr. Ellen Marmur, M.D., says that you can also use toners for combination skin to, say, clean up an oily T-zone (Simple Skin Beauty). She also said that the gentler toners, which aren’t drying and don’t contain alcohol are superfluous if you use a moisturizer, but can be great at removing the last stubborn bits of makeup.

Basically, toners are kind of post-cleansing safety net to get rid of excessive dirt and makeup. A good cleanser should leave your skin feeling clean, but for those with especially dirty skin, something extra might be require. Toners wipe away residue and dirt that other cleansers missed, essentially. Depending on your toner’s ingredients, it may help as an exfoliator and even prevent ingrown hairs (since it cleans up the pores). A good toner should also protect skin against external damage, like bacteria and dirt, by minimizing pores and in some cases encouraging skin to create a protective film (MD Health).

But Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D., warns not to overuse toners, as they can cause dryness and irritation (DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual).

Skin Fresheners and Tonics

The skin freshener is the most gentle in the toner family, containing no alcohol and being comprised mostly of water and herbal extracts.  Conversely, skin tonics are the perfect solution for those of us plagued with sometimes oily, sometimes dry skin. This type of toner contains up to 20 percent alcohol, but is typically gentler than skin astringents. Like its counterparts, skin tonics are used to clean up the skin and restore the proper amount of moisture, depending on the individual (MD Health). But some dermatologists say that if you’re using a good cleanser and moisturizer, that a tonic like this is unnecessary.

Toners and certain tonics are effective moisturizers because they contain humectants, which draw moisture from the lower layers of skin into the outer layers of skin. Additionally, humectants are renowned for their being able to pull moisture from the atmosphere, make skin suppler, encourage exfoliation and rejuvenation, and dry skin (Dr. Heath Brannon). Reasonably, humectants such as glycerin would work for those of us with alternatively dry to oily and acne-prone skin by evenly distributing natural moisture and also shedding dead or damaged cells that would collect moisture deposits that could lead to acne or irritation.

Skin Astringents

An astringent is the most powerful in the toner family, having an alcohol content of anywhere between 20-60 percent. Typically, you should stay away from astringents toners unless you have excessively oily skin, and even then you should limit usage to only a few times a week so that skin won’t be dried out. Even if you have bad acne or oily spots, over-using astringents can cause severe irritation and may even cause the skin to backlash and produce excess sebum, so use caution (MD-Health).

Due to their high alcohol content, astringent toners are typically best for treating pimples and even tightening skin. But how can something that removes excess oil make skin clearer and tighter – won’t it make cells create more oil to compensate? Not quite; if used properly, astringents should be able to shrink and sanitize pores that were previously clogged up, keeping away dirt and bacteria that would otherwise backlog them (Dr. Howard Murad).

If you want to find an astringent toner for your skin, look for ingredients that include witch hazel, alcohol (alcohols end in “-ol”), and acids. Make sure to test out the product on your arm or a similar part of the body before using on the face, in case you may be allergic to or easily irritated by the astringent.

Bottom Line

While toners aren’t essential, they can be quite useful for combatting pimples, oily skin, bacteria, and dirt build up. However, you need to be careful when picking one out since there are three main categories: fresheners, which are the gentlest and meant for sensitive skin; tonics, which contains some alcohol and are suited for combination dry/oily/acne-prone skin; and astringents, which can have up to 60 percent alcohol and should be used sparingly to eliminate acne and oily skin. Toners do have numerous benefits, such as exfoliation and moisturizing properties, but there are a plethora of other products that will get the job done well and in one instance, rendering the toner a useful albeit superfluous item for most users.

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  • Taylor

    A. Raymond,

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed the article, thank you for you compliment. If I may recommend a toner, Lancome’s Tonique Confort (link below). We should have the product review for it up sometime next week if you would like to check it out. However, it is a tonic, which means that it has some alchohol content and would be good for combination skin consistency. It was good at moisturizing to just the right degree whie keeping skin feeling smooth, fresh, and shrinking some pesky zits.
    Thank you again for your kind words! I hope that you continue to enjoy our blog, and that you will give Lancome’s Toner a try 🙂
    P.S. I just wanted to clarify that there aren’t any “cons” that necessarily come with using a toner – it’s just key that you find one that matches your skin type so that your skin won’t become too oily or dry. Hope this answers all of your questions, and please feel free to post again if there is anything else you would like to know!

  • Thanks, your post is very informative. I have a combination skin so after reading your post, I think I should get myself a good toner. On the other hand considering all the cons, I’ll be careful in using it.

  • Taylor

    Hello Deirdre!

    Thank you so much for your kind words, I am glad that my article was of help. May I ask, did this article sway you in favor of using a toner, or convince you that it is unnecessary?
    Keep enjoying our blog, and make sure to check back soon for the Lancome Tonique Confort Review! (Spoiler: it was wonderful!)

  • Excellent, informative post and an interesting conclusion. Toners are confusing or were… many thanks! – DC

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